Dead Man’s Switch
By Marium Rafay | Published 9 years ago
Imran works in a garment factory in Karachi and commutes from his hometown Faisalabad to Karachi twice a year by train, traversing a distance of over 1,000 km, which typically takes 18.5 hours on the Pakistan Express. Newsline contacted Imran en route to Karachi this summer, near Nawabshah, where his train had broken down due to an engine failure. Stranded in the scorching heat, Imran sounded distressed and exhausted, but despite the uncertainty of travelling by train, he, along with an estimated 80 million people, has no other choice — rail, to date, remains the cheapest mode of transportation cross-country. Imran’s train finally pulled into the station at Karachi 11 hours after its scheduled arrival time.
A visit on-board the Karakoram Expressway — named after the Karakoram mountains bordering China — bound for Lahore at the Karachi Cantonment Railway Station (Karachi Cantt), revealed that delays were just one of a multitude of problems that plagued Pakistan Railways (PR). All the lights and fans in the lower-class (economy) bogeys, save one or two, were not working and were choked with cobwebs and dust. In the sweltering heat, passengers had resorted to carrying with them large coolers and iced bottles of water on board and had opened the windows for ventilation. There was no running water in the toilets, and there would be for the entire length of the journey, as testified by all those who had previously travelled on the same train. Abdul Saleem, a 55 year-old mechanic, who graduated from the Pakistan Railways Academy (better known as Walton Academy) in Lahore and had been with the PR for three decades, grinned back at me when I questioned him about the state of the berths. “We are all thieves, right up to my officers,” he brazenly remarked. Saleem and his family of 10, who were on their way back to Lahore after attending a wedding in Shah Faisal Colony in Karachi, got free and sometimes subsidised tickets on Pakrail. But they had other complaints. His commission, Saleem said, was always more than six months late due to excessive red tape. “I even pay for my own food and drink when I am hired to clean, or fix the brakes or gear,” he said. However he assured me that when duty called he did his best to procure the spare parts he needed from the washing line (where the primary maintenance of trains is carried out) and fit them in place of obsolete parts so that the train could continue its journey.
“These are not trains, do you understand that? They are just makeshift parts glued together,” continued Mohammed Qadeer, a taxi driver who has frequented the Karachi Cantt station for the past 40 years. “People call me Doctor Qadeer,” he beamed, sucking on his beeri (cigarette). “I can tell you from experience that Bilour sara kuch apne ghar le gaya,” referring to the incumbent Railways minister. While no one person can be singled out in this colossal quagmire that is the Railways department, it is clear that the public holds higher officials in the current administration responsible for this mess.
It is no secret that Pakistan Railways (PR) is in shambles. It bleeds Rs 50,000 of 1.8 million taxpayers’ money every single minute, even though 80 million use it as their primary mode of transportation. The reality of the Railways, as it stands today is as follows: a fleet of more than 520 locomotives has been reduced to a mere 74, 87% of the railways bridges have outlived their lifespan of over 100 years, half of over 21,000 carriages are defunct, 4,000 acres of Pakistan Railways land is encroached upon, losses according to a World Bank report stand at around Rs 80 billion and freight trains (PR’s cash cow) have virtually ground to a halt. A former Railways official put it succinctly: “Pakistan Railways is on its last breath.”
To add to their woes, PR is grossly overstaffed — over two billion rupees are spent every year on an estimated 80,000 employees. Fuel too is a contentious issue as PR, at the time of writing this, was yet to clear its dues worth over one billion rupees to Pakistan State Oil (PSO). PSO had recently extended its line of credit, but 153 trains were suspended last month, as there was no diesel to run them. Furthermore former Railways’ minister, Awami Muslim League’s Sheikh Rasheed, believes that Railways tracks and diesel are being stolen and the use of kerosene oil used as a substitute in the engines is destroying the trains. Earlier this year an inquiry concluded that adulterated oil had rendered 198 locomotives unusable inflicting heavy losses. Misappropriated funds, according to a PR audit report (2010-11), stood at over six billion rupees last year and corruption, kickbacks and general apathy among the Railways administration, especially in the last three years, are rife. Moreover, there has been no research and development in the department and mega projects like bullet trains, double track and improvement of signals have been set aside. At present, local trains travel at a speed of 55-60 km/h, whereas in neighbouring China high-speed rail has crossed the 350-400km/h mark. As the financial crisis deepens, it seems fair to ask whether government subsidies and the 11.2 billion-rupee bailout package announced by the federal government will plug the leak?
Some speculate that the downfall of Pakistan Railways was initiated by Zia-ul-Haq, 35 years back, when he set up the National Logistics Cell (NLC) to manage the transport of goods, including cotton, urea, wheat, fertiliser, sugar, petroleum and cement, from ports in Karachi and Bin Qasim, upcountry and across the four provinces, cutting into the revenues of Pakistan Railways. Others, like Qadeer, the taxi driver, point to mob pillaging and burning train carriages in the hours after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, costing Pakistan Railways billions of rupees. According to former Railways minister Sheikh Rasheed, “sixty to seventy locomotives were burnt in just 72 hours.” Then there are those who maintain that successive administrations, due to their dishonest and lax attitudes, have cost the industry immensely. Lahore High Court’s Justice Sheikh Azmat Saeed — during the hearings on outstanding dues owed by PR to its legal advisors — observed that lazy and corrupt officials have ruined the 150-year-old department. In an interview with a private TV channel, Sheikh Rasheed too declared, “the current Railways chairman doesn’t even know whether the engine of the train goes in the front or at the back,” and complained that appointments to lucrative posts in PR are based on nepotism, not merit. And the apathy of successive administrations has resulted in deadly and sometimes fatal accidents due to signal failures, faulty brake systems, overloading of goods and passengers and broken tracks. Towards the end of August this year, a train collision near Lahore left 25 people injured. Among Pakistan’s worst train disasters is the one in the village of Sangi, Sukkur in 1990, where an overcrowded train crashed into a stationary freight car claiming more than 300 lives.
Newsline met with Signal Maintainers (SM) at the Cantt station Karachi, who were busy fixing rail tracks that had short-circuited due to the late monsoon rains this year. The SM crew voiced the same frustration as other Pakistan Railways employees: “We have no tools, no safety equipment, no uniforms, no shoes, no caps, not even torches for when we work late into the night.” They earn only Rs10,000 per month but their work was imperative in safeguarding against accidents, such as the one in 2007, in which 56 people died when a train derailed due to a faulty track in Mehrabpur, Sindh.
Station Master Bashir Ahmed Abbasi who has worked for Pakistan Railways for 37 years feels “the future is dark.” At the time of the interview the Karakoram Express was still stationed at the platform, one hour after its scheduled departure time. He revealed that this was because there was no engine available for the train. Outside, passengers waited in overcrowded berths unaware of this predicament. In the month of October alone, 115 trains were halted due to the unavailability of engines. Abbasi maintained that on a daily basis he dealt with coaches that short-circuited, struggled to find replacements for train parts and simply did not have the funds to troubleshoot when problems cropped up. This was after the 11 billion-rupee bailout packages had been approved. At the time of writing this, there were ongoing protests across the country over non-payment of salaries to employees of Pakistan Railways for the month of September. Trains ground to a halt stranding thousands of passengers at stations across the country. At one such protest in Rawalpindi, Ishtiaq Aasi of Prem Union revealed that the higher officials had received their salaries and it was only the lower-scale employees who had not been paid. PR officials retorted that the finance ministry had not disbursed Rs4 billion required monthly to meet expenditures and consequently they could not even pay salaries, leave alone pension payments and liabilities. As the crisis deepened, gas supply to 30 colonies and electricity to 30 stations was cut off when cheques from PR to PSO, Sui Gas, and WAPDA bounced. But the death of a 65-year-old pensioner of PR who was waiting outside the bank all night for his stipend rung alarm bells across the nation and the chief justice took suo moto notice of the PR’s state of affairs. Amidst mounting pressure, the finance ministry finally agreed to release Rs1 billion for payment of salaries and an additional four billion rupees to repair tracks and locomotives.
Despite its fully staffed workshops, Pakistan Railways floated international and private tenders to fix locomotives and to buy new locomotives which, according to a PR official, will cost a fortune — money that PR cannot afford at the moment. “Pakistan Railways does not need anything from America, and certainly not China, we can rely on ourselves,” said Raheem, a train driver, as he stood near the Karachi Diesel workshop, which employs over 1,200 employees. Raheem was alluding to the 69 locomotives bought in a multimillion-dollar deal, during Lt-Gen Javed Ashraf Qazi’s tenure as Railways Minister in the year 2000, which proved unusable, as they did not match PR’s technical requirements. And Raheem is just one of many who have voiced serious concerns over procurement deals that seem to make no financial sense. The Mughalpura workshop in Lahore, employees over 2,000 technical staff and repairs locomotives and carriages, like the one in Rawalpindi. There is also an engine-manufacturing factory in Islamabad, the Carriage factory, and one in Risalpur (which can produce four diesel-electric locomotives per month if operated on a two-shift schedule). India, in its two public manufacturing units for Railways, produces 200 engines every year.
Former Railways minister Sheikh Rasheed has offered and emphatically declared that if he fails to revive PR in just two months, the people can hang him at Lal Haveli. At a sit-in led by the AML, PR workers and union leaders and members at the Lahore Railways on October 13 took to task the government, accusing it of apathy and massive corruption. Rasheed alleged that “conspirators” were destroying PR and, in effect, damaging the national economy. While Rasheed also saw losses accumulating to over 20 billion rupees during his tenure, which he attributed to bank interest payments for loans taken by his predecessor, he tells Newsline that he has clear solutions to this conundrum. Says Rasheed, “We started 24 new passenger trains and 18-25 freight trains left from Karachi every day while this administration has halted 124 freight trains.” He maintains that the recommencement of freight trains is imperative to get funds into the Railway’s coffers. Today PR is in dire need of 400 engines to run the freight trains. “During my tenure there were 16,500 freight cars, now not even one is running.” In the past, over 15-18 freight cars did the rounds and generated Rs10 million in revenue every day and accounted for 60% of the profits of the department. Sheikh Rasheed also believes that locomotives and engines can both be manufactured and repaired locally in factories such as the Mardan Engine Factory. But his first advice to Railways is to purge themselves of dishonest and corrupt officials. He insists that officials adopt a more hands-on approach, reminiscing that he would frequently attach his bogey with freight trains and travel by rail when he was in office, also alluding that the incumbent minister may have never travelled by rail. Sheikh Rasheed was also critical of the two billion rupees being spent on salaries and the one billion rupees spent on 9,000 Railways police personnel and remarked that if the industry rid itself of these excesses they would recover in just one year. When asked about the thousands of acres of Railways land, which have been encroached upon by the land mafia, or developed illegally, he maintained that the anti-encroachment drive was vital, albeit a cumbersome one. Meanwhile, the additional general manager Railways admitted that 98 acres of Railways land were illegally occupied in the city of Lahore alone and despite repeated directives from the Senate and the National Assembly, these encroachments had not been cleared.
Pakistan Railways’ financial woes are inexcusable, considering the traffic and the potential revenue that could come from the land, if it were freed from the clutches of the land mafia. There are no easy solutions to the plight of Pakistan Railways, but there are no short cuts either. A mammoth-sized infrastructure requires careful study and analysis by experts and a detailed feasibility report so that a step-by-step solution can be implemented. Privatisation has been considered as an option but the vehement opposition from the trade unions has relegated this option to the backburner. PR recently invited the private sector to enter into partnership with the public to restore locomotives and revive the fleet, the sucess of which is yet to be determined. Nevertheless the lacklustre response from the federal government has been equally disappointing. What is disturbing is the urgency of the problem — Pakistan Railways may just come to a grinding halt if it is not put back on track.
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